Samuel Beckett's Postmodern Fictions
Beckett shares with Borges the distinction of inaugurating in literature what has come to be called postmodernism. The term is still the subject of heated debate. It clearly refers to that which succeeds modernism, itself an international movement that broke with nineteenth century
forms of realism. But the impetus of modernism has continued to the present day, so that postmodernism coexists with that which it claims to displace. The phenomenon of postmodernism then cannot be explained in purely temporal terms. As the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard has suggested, it represents a radical epistemological break with our understanding of what the human sciences have to offer. What characterizes the postmodern in Lyotard's eyes is the abandonment of those grand narratives that began with the Enlightenment, such as the liberation of humanity or the unification of all knowledge. The unstable, heterogeneous and dispersed social reality of the postmodern cannot be contained within any totalizing theory. Without such metanarratives, Lyotard argues, each work of art, "working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done," becomes a unique event describing its own process of coming into being.
This is what Beckett's fictions do. Each one starts out anew, inventing its rules as it goes along. Its subject is itself, the narrating voice creating a world out of language. Before, between and after the jabber of words that constitute the fiction is silence. How to express silence through sound? Beckett is preoccupied with this dilemma from the beginning of his career. Unlike pigment and musical notes, words signify beyond any writer's control. "Is there any reason," Beckett asks a friend in 1937, "why that terrible arbitrary materiality of the word's surface should not be permitted to dissolve...?" As an avant-garde writer Beckett fretted from the start of his career over the inescapable signification that accompanies the words he wants to use abstractly. In a world deprived of meaning how can the linguistic artist express this meaninglessness with words that necessarily convey meaning? How can he produce what he called a "literature of the unword?" Throughout his long writing life Beckett conducted a war on words that led him to startling innovations in form and language. He went on experimenting to the end, never content with the increasingly minimal, pared down fictions that characterize the second half of his writing life. Nothing satisfied him for long. Words, the enemy, continued to signify beyond every defeat he inflicted on them. His fictions are the progressive record of his fight to subdue language so that the silence of the Real might make its presence felt. The fact that the later fictions resurrect themselves on the corpses of those that preceded them is the reason for the chronological consideration of his work in this chapter.
Silence features large in his earliest fiction, "Assumption" (a short story, 1929), "Dream of Fair to Middling Women" (a novel written in 1932, published 1983), More Pricks Than Kicks (a novel, or ten connected short stories, 1934), and "A Case in a Thousand" (a short story, 1934). In "Assumption" the male protagonist is locked in a self-imposed silence. After he has met a woman who seduces him, a lifetime's suppressed scream escapes from him that sweeps her aside and leads to his death, "fused with the cosmic discord." Here in miniature is described the fate awaiting Belacqua, the anti-hero of "Dream" and More Pricks. Like his namesake in Dante's Purgatorio, Belacqua aspires to stasis and silence. Inevitably this makes him unlikable (he is constantly escaping social obligations) and uninteresting in conventional novelistic terms. As in "Assumption" sexuality is closely linked to death, figurative and literal. Sexual love means exile from the self. It is also likely to result in that unforgivable crime - bringing another unfortunate human being into this purgatorial life. So Beckett from the start offers us an anti-hero in an anti-novel that scorns the conventions of romance.
In fact the Belacqua narratives implicitly reject the conventions of the entire genre of prose fiction. In his construction of fictional character Beckett explicitly renounces the appeal to "[m]ilieux, race, family, structure. temperament, past and present..." He refuses to offer motive, for instance, when Belacqua decides to commit suicide: "The simplest course ..is to call that deed ex nihilo and have done." Revealingly he offers the suggestion that, in acting so capriciously throughout the book, Belacqua may "be likened to the laws of nature." So much for claims to psychological realism by modernists such as Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. Beckett plays just as fast and loose with the plot. Pages are devoted to Belacqua's preparations of a lunchtime sandwich. But all "major" events are thrown away as asides. On the eve of her marriage to Belacqua, Lucy on horseback is run over by a "drunken lord" in a Daimler. Her horse dies instantly. "Lucy however was not so fortunate, being crippled for life and her beauty dreadfully marred." This arbitrary accident in turn becomes the key to the couple's happiness by removing her from the sexual arena. Three pages later the next section begins peremptorily: "Belacqua was so happy married to the crippled Lucy that he tended to be sorry for himself when she died, which she did on the eve of the second anniversary of her terrible accident." Beckett reverses the traditional understanding of what is and is not important within the event structure of a novel. Belacqua's death at the operating table is another pure accident that is dismissed in two sentences: "By Christ! he did die! They had clean forgotten to auscultate him!"
Throughout both Belacqua narratives the narrator plays an obtrusive, metafictional role. He comments on his own and others' fictional structures. "The only unity in this story," he interjects, "is, please God, an involuntary unity." He reminds us (also in "Dream") of the fictional status of his invented characters: "There is no real Belacqua, it is to be hoped not indeed, there is no such person." He shares with his readers his authorial manipulations of character and event, saying of Belacqua, "What shall we make him do now, what would be the correct thing for him to think for us?" At the same time Beckett plays tricks on his readers by showing his narrator to be unreliable, inconsistent, and deceitful. By the end of More Pricks the reader is left with no firm vantage point, no center from which to order the material of the book. Had the publisher allowed the final episode ("Echo's Bones") to appear with the others this narrative confusion would have been compounded by the post-mortem appearance of Belacqua, who in one section obliges a local lord by spending the night with his wife so as to leave him with an heir. Beckett's habitual association of sexuality with mortality here reaches bizarre proportions.
The language Beckett employs in these early fictions could be described as Irish baroque. Dialogue is mannered and consists largely of non sequiturs. Descriptive passages are characterized by a display of artifice and verbal ingenuity that is often divorced from fictional function. Beckett attempts to subvert the representational nature of words by the use of figurative language. In addition Beckett relies heavily on literary allusion to foreground the opaque nature of his text. Both titles of the Belacqua narratives make bathetic allusion to literary classics as does the name of the protagonist. Whole episodes form loose parodies of scenes from earlier writers' fictions. "Wet Night", for instance, is a poor imitation of a Proustian party scene. At times the narrative sinks under the weight of excessive allusion. At the same time Beckett uses intertextuality to remind the reader of the intrusion of literature into life, of the command language has over human destiny. Unfortunately language in More Pricks also appears to have the upper hand in Beckett's fight to subvert its semantic properties.
Murphy (1938) shows Beckett exercising more control over this Irish baroque style. The opening sentence suggests the new sense of economy that characterizes his prose style in this book: "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new." Packed into this sentence are a parody of Ecclesiastes (1. v), a subscription to fatalism, and a statement of a major theme in the book - the absence of real change in human life. Beckett is trying to break through the illusion of order, of correspondence between signifier and signified, that words produce. Murphy offers a vision of Creation as a huge verbal joke. Its hero, Murphy, not only reverses all commonly accepted social conventions (preferring rest to work, contemplation to sexual love, the insane to the sane); he simultaneously inverts traditional uses of language. "In the beginning was the pun," he intones. Beckett employs puns, paradox, allusion, repetition, inversion, all in an attempt to disrupt the predictable semantic effects of language. Much of the resulting dialogue is highly mannered, showing more interest in creating mutually negating patterns of words than in mimetically reproducing plausible verbal exchanges. Take Murphy's exchange with Celia, the heroine-prostitute:
"How can I care what you do?"
"I am what I do," said Celia.
"No," said Murphy. "You do what you are..."
Murphy comes closer than his fictional predecessor to Dante's Belacqua (about whom he fantasizes) by inducing physical stasis in order to be free to explore the world of the mind. An entire chapter describes his mind and his attempts to retreat to what he fondly imagines is its freedom from worldly involvement. "Murphy's mind pictured itself as a large hollow sphere, hermetically closed to the universe without." Here Beckett pictures for the first time the skullscape of consciousness that is to become the principal arena for his major work. Murphy in fact feels divided in Cartesian fashion between body and mind - the perfect inheritor of an Enlightenment project gone awry. His mind is divided into three zones, light, half light, and dark, roughly corresponding to the conscious, semi conscious and unconscious. He aspires to enter the dark which is "nothing but commotion." "Here he was not free, but a mote in the dark of absolute freedom." Murphy's biggest error consists in thinking that he can choose or will himself to become such a mote. Freedom in this book means total indifference to one's circumstances. The only character who approximates to this condition is Endon (Greek for "within"), a mental patient. Murphy plays chess with him only to realize that Endon plays chess with nobody but himself. He does not even acknowledge the existence of his opponent. Gazing into Endon's eyes Murphy realizes that Endon fails to see him. All he can perceive is his own reflection in Endon's eyeballs. "'Mr. Murphy is a speck in Mr. Endon's unseen.'" No communication between minds is possible.
If Murphy represents the mind in Descartes' dual metaphysic, a bunch of Irish characters in search of Murphy for various reasons represent the tyranny of the body. Rushing between Cork, Dublin and London, they are incessantly in motion. One of them (Cooper) is unable to sit down until the end of the book. They all subscribe to a Newtonian world governed by the conservation of momentum. One - Neary (an acronym for "yearn") - spends his time longing for one woman only to transfer his affections to another as soon as he wins her. "I greatly fear," his companion Wylie tells him, "that the syndrome known as life is too diffuse to admit of palliation. For every symptom that is eased, another is made worse." All action is shown to be pointless. Celia, trying to decide whether to return to Murphy or abandon him for good, asks: "What difference...would it make now, whether she went up the stairs to Murphy or back down them into the mew?" The narrator answers: "The difference between her way of destroying them both, according to him, and his way, according to her." Once again Beckett uses self-negating clauses to undermine both the validity of action and the semantic logic of words.
Murphy is characterized by many of the features of what has since become a recognizable Beckettian world. Love is exile from reality. Birth is a form of death. Sanity is insanity. Activity is non-productive. Philosophy is the consolation of the deluded. Linguistically Beckett achieves similar effects. Psychotic patients' padded cells are in Murphy's eyes Spenserian "indoor bowers of bliss." Our possession of a mind and a body are dismissed in the misquoted words of Marlow's Barabas as "infinite riches in a W.C." (what could be more like Marlow's "little room" than that?). Murphy refers to "the moment of his being strangled into a state of respiration." (one remembers Beckett saying to John Gruen after being awarded the Nobel Prize: "The major sin is the sin of being born.") Exiting from life is already a problem: Murphy was earlier a theological student who spent his time "pondering Christ's Parthian shaft: It is finished." Repeatedly Beckett turns quotations back on themselves, especially Biblical ones. As Murphy puts it, "What but an imperfect sense of humor could have made such a mess of chaos." Murphy is Beckett's most accessible novel. It is also a clever parody of many of the characteristics of the genre he was using.
Watt, Beckett's last novel to be written in English, was begun in Paris in 1942, continued in Rousillon where Beckett was hiding from the Gestapo in 1942-3, and finished in Dublin and Paris in 1945. It was not published until 1953 after Waiting for Godot and the first two of his celebrated trilogy of novels (Molloy, Mallone Dies, The Unnamable ) had appeared in print. Beckett has called it "unsatisfactory" while affirming that "it has its place in the series." That seems a fair assessment of this peculiarly difficult book that contains quintessentially Beckettian motifs that nevertheless fail to find a wholly satisfactory fictional embodiment. The novel is almost without "significant" incident. Watt makes his way to Mr. Knott's house, becomes second, then first servant there, fails to ascertain anything definable about Knott, is replaced, leaves the house and ends up in a "mansion" that closely resembles a mental asylum.
In fact Watt's journey is an inner journey of the mind, what Beckett describes in one of the poems printed in the Addenda to the book as "the dim mind wayfaring/" and "the dark mind stumbling/ through barren lands." Watt sees his quest in the former terms, the narrator in the latter terms. Watt is an inveterate rationalist who pursues Cartesian rules for orderly enquiry with such rigor that he repeatedly exposes the futile nature of the entire epistemological endeavor. What gave Descartes and the entire Enlightenment project its sense of optimism was the need to invoke God as a way of bridging the otherwise baffling barrier between mind (or self) and body (or matter). Watt, a representative modern skeptic and agnostic in search of the self, brings the Enlightenment project to a standstill by taking it more seriously and pursuing it more thoroughly than any of his fictional predecessors. Watt comes face to face with the néant of the post-war, postmodern world epitomized by Knottt and his house. Watt's "What?" is negated by Knottt's "Not." The conjunction of these two figures produces whatnot, an absence of metanarratives, especially those of the late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century rationalists. Where Descartes argued his way from thought to being and thence to God, Watt finds that the application of reason leaves him doubting his own, as well as that of a divine, being.
Both words and numbers fail Watt. Numbers fail because they are the invention of the fallible human brain. A footnote following an exhaustive account of the members of the Lynch family reads: "The figures given here are incorrect. The consequent calculations are therefore doubly erroneous." When rationalists try to apply the arithmetical neatness of numbers to the web of language all hell is let loose. Knottt negates Watt's cogito by remaining wordless. His nothingness can only be circumscribed by Watt's words that prove to be self canceling. Watt realizes that "the only way one can speak of nothing is to speak of it as though it were something, just as the only way one can speak of God is to speak of him as though he were a man." Both God and the Real have no adequate place in the symbolic order of language. They can only be given shape in the form of fictions. Form is all that is left. Linguistic form. Fictional form. Words turn out to be delusory semantic succor for Watt who, with his faulty reasoning, "had turned, little by little, a disturbance into words, he had made a pillow of old words, for his head."
Many of Watt's rationalist attempts to exhaust all the possibilities of a subject are listed exhaustively (and exhaustingly) over pages and pages of the novel, trying the patience of most readers. The most distinctive characteristic of this novel is its disruptive use of form to suggest the formlessness of the Real. The first and last of its four sections are located in the everyday world that surrounds Knottt's house. In section I Watt finds his way to the house and replaces the upstairs servant by moving in downstairs, the downstairs servant moving upstairs. The middle two sections describe Watt's stay in first the downstairs and then the upstairs floors of Knottt's house. In section IV Watt leaves the house on the arrival of a new servant downstairs. He makes his way to the train station where he buys a ticket to the end of the line. After his disappearance the station officials agree that "life isn't such a bad old bugger." Watt is returned to the world of delusion.
But in section III we learn that Watt is telling his story to Sam, the narrator of the book, in an asylum that he has reached after buying his ticket to the end of the line. The beginning of section IV reads: "As Watt told the beginning of his story, not first, but second, so not fourth, but third, now he told its end." The contorted word order of this sentence draws attention to the contorted way in which the chronological order of Watt's narration has been rearranged by Sam. Neither order is that of the fabula (or basic story-line); both are versions of syuzhet (or plotted rearrangement of the story). In Sam's version of the story it is Watt's stay at Knottt's house that is illusory, contained within the "realistic" outer sections; in Watt's telling it is the everyday world of sections I and IV that are made to appear illusory, contained within the two sections describing Watt's stay at Knottt's house. By this means Beckett avoids giving primacy to either the world of the mind or that of the body. This neat interchangeability is further complicated by the fact that the opening and closing pages of the novel cannot have been witnessed by Watt or told by him to Sam. Moreover Watt's only direct speech appears in section III where he communicates with Sam by pronouncing words, then sentences, backwards. So the entire fiction paradoxically uses Sam's words to describe a near-wordless protagonist whose use of words has been negated by the wordless Knottt.
After Watt Beckett underwent a double revolution. On a short visit to Dublin in 1946 he had a blinding flash of insight in which he realized that the "dark side" of his personality should provide him with the true subject of his work. His new aim was to conduct an interior excavation of that darkness that he "had struggled to keep under." At about the same time he began writing in an acquired, alien language - French - to curb the remnants of what I have called his Irish Gothic. In French, he claimed, "it is easier to write without style." He proceeded to write a novel, Mercier et Camier, that he withheld from publication until 1970, partly because he drew on some of it for Waiting for Godot. The same year he wrote four nouvelles that anticipate in theme and form the trilogy of novels that was to establish his reputation in the field of fiction. They show Beckett turning to the interior monologue as the form best suited to his new desire for self-excavation. Each protagonist, like his successors in the trilogy, tells himself "this story that aspires to be the last."
In a spurt of creativity between 1947 and 1949 Beckett wrote Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (Malone muert, 1953), and The Unnamable (L'innommable, 1953). Each novel has its own pseudo-couple, avatars or stand-ins for Beckett, the narrating subject. Molloy is divided into the story of Molloy from the moment he set out on crutches and bicycle to find his mother to his arrival in her room where he sits in bed writing his story, and the story of Moran who sets out in search of Molloy with his son and ends up writing a report of his failure to find him. Malone Dies describes Malone, in bed in a similar room to that of Molloy's mother's, writing stories (while waiting to die) about one Saposcat (a combination of homo sapiens and skatos, Greek for excrement) who turns into Macmann (son of man - or of Malone, the evil one). The Unnamable offers the narrative of a disembodied voice that conjures up images of two postmortem "vice-existers", Mahood (manhood?) a trunk and head without limbs stuck in a jar, and Worm, an even more rudimentary creature with minimal human attributes. All three novels focus on a representative human consciousness trying to come to terms with its existence by telling itself stories featuring itself as hero of its own fictions.
Each of the three novels is an exercise in self-destruction. Molloy illustrates in particular the anti-chronological thrust of Beckett's project. Moran's apparent failure to track down Molloy is undercut by the way he is transformed in the course of his search from the confident agent and authoritarian father at the start of his narrative to an uncanny copy (down to the crutches) of Molloy, whose story preceded his. The reason in part is that Moran, like Molloy, is searching for his true self, whatever that might be. "And as for myself, that unfailing pastime, ...there were moments when it did not seem so far from me, when I seemed to be drawing towards it..." That self is what Beckett once called "the narrator narrated." Beckett uses his successive pairs of protagonists to try to stalk this self, to illuminate his darkness that constantly recedes before the light of his narrational pursuit. So the trilogy is equally about the predicament of representative man who tries to reach the core of his being by recounting his life to himself, and about the predicament of the modern artist bent on exploring the source of his imagination by telling stories to himself (and others) which alienate him from the "real" world. The predicament, as Beckett described it in his early critical work on Proust, is that to be a modern artist "is to fail, as no other dare fail, that failure is his world, and to shrink from it desertion." As the Unnamable reassures himself, "I am doing my best, and failing again."
Seen thematically, each successive novel appears to repeat the pattern established in its predecessor. Put in the structuralist terms of the French semiotician, A.J. Greimas, Beckett seems to be presenting the same "immanent level" of narration, the same paradigmatic story, in all three novels. And yet there is an apparent progression from the two narrators' accounts of their increasingly impeded physical journeys in Molloy, to Malone's written account of the wanderings of fictional substitutes, to the Unnamable's wholly verbal meanderings where to "go on" means to go on voicing his mental search for an escape from his world of words. In each novel the narrator succeeds in scaling down his need - from wanting to reach his mother, to wanting to die, to wanting to stop speaking. As the recurrent narrative structure only emerges after the second and third novels have been read, Beckett is able to lure his readers into the same illusion suffered by his successive protagonists - that they are making progress. In Beckett's bleak view of human existence we delude ourselves into thinking that things are changing in order to avoid the harsh truth that life is fundamentally repetitive. As Malone reminds himself, "The forms are many in which the unchanging seeks relief from its formlessness." Perception is subjective and fallible. "What I best see I see ill," says the Unnamable. Memory fails us, so that we cannot remember whether we have been through any particular experience before. Time is circular, space illusory. "I am being given," Malone writes, "if I may venture the expression, birth into death." As John Fletcher pointed out, Malone Dies illustrates Georges Bataille's observation that man is the only creature who spends his life mythologizing his death.
So all the narrators and their doubles are seeking for a place of final rest - their mother's room (or womb), physical death, an end to speech. Each successive narrator pursues a more reductive search of the self; each fails. Why? Because the self belongs to the void of the Real. The void or néant belongs to a realm of silence. But humans are condemned to the false linearity, rationality and semantic properties of language. Put in Lacanian terms, each of us longs to return to the blissful ignorance of infancy when our experience was one of pure libido (or Obidil, as Moran calls it, whom he "longed to see face to face"). Instead we are condemned to a symbolic order in which language constitutes us as subjects split within ourselves. We are split between a conscious self whose lack condemns us to a lifetime of unfulfilled desire and an unconscious forever deferred along the signifying chain of language. We are also split between a desire for unity and a lack of concrete being. This is what Moran terms "being dispossessed of self." The Unnamable resorts to paradox to describe the paradoxical nature of human consciousness divided within itself: "Where I am there is no one but me, who am not."
The trilogy takes this predicament of ours and doggedly explores it until it has reduced the problem to one of pure language in The Unnamable. The voice in this third novel desperately looks for a way to reach silence, just as the narrator looks for a way finally to end his narration by telling the story of himself instead of that of "the ponderous chronicle of moribunds" that the trilogy has produced. His problem is bound up in the nature of language, especially in the unique nature of the first and second person pronouns. Beckett appears to have anticipated the formulations of the French structuralist linguist, Emile Benveniste. Benveniste argues that the pronouns "I" and "you," unlike other signifiers, only produce signifieds in concrete discursive contexts. Unlike "tree," say, "I" has no concrete meaning until it appears in a specific context. There it signifies somebody only for the duration of the discourse in which it appears. "So," Benveniste concludes, "it is literally true that the basis of subjectivity is in the exercise of language." This also means that in between two discursive moments subjectivity evaporates. When Malone loses his pencil for forty eight hours, on recovering it he writes, "I have spent two unforgettable days of which nothing will ever be known..." This is why all the narrators in the trilogy pant on to the end, because it is only by continuing to speak in the first person that they can hope to constitute themselves as subjects. As the Unnamable says, "the discourse must go on," because "I'm in words, made of words, others' words."
Why "others' words"? Because, as Benveniste explains, any discursive use of "I" entails two subjects, the speaking subject or "referent," and the subject of speech or "referee." He goes on to insist that these two "I"s can never be collapsed into one another. The spoken subject acts as a signifier. By identifying with this signifier the speaking subject hopes to define his or her subjectivity. In Beckett's trilogy the spoken subject is invariably one of the speaking subject's many "vice-existers," by means of which the narrator seeks to signify his own self. He would like to collapse this distinction, to be, as the Unnamable longs to be, "the teller and the told." Instead the narrator is carried helplessly along a chain of signifiers - his "troop of lunatics," never reaching the signified of himself. "When I think," says the Unnamable, "of the time I've wasted with these bran-dips, beginning with Murphy, who wasn't even the first, when I had me on the premises, within easy reach, tottering under my own skin and bones, real ones, rotting with solitude and neglect, till I doubted my own existence, and even still, today, I have no faith in it, none, so that I have to say, when I speak, Who speaks, and seek, and so on and similarly for all the other things that happen to me and for which someone must be found, for things that happen must have someone to happen to, someone must stop them." Here within one breathless sentence Beckett wittily follows full circle the chain of signifiers from Murphy and before that were intended to lead to their signified - the narrating self - and that by the end of this deliberately contorted syntactical structure still hold the speaking subject at a distance from himself.
Beckett knows, then, that he is bound to fail at his excavatory task. His failure is itself a satiric thrust at not just the metanarratives of humanist metaphysics but at the pretensions of verbal fictions that see themselves as narrating fictions instead of concentrating on the fiction of narration. This latter Beckett does by poking fun at the tricks language plays on the narrator. Moran, for instance, begins his narration in an orderly manner, giving his name, introducing his report and setting the scene with: "It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows." But his attempt to be factual and businesslike gradually breaks down and turns into the paragraphless flow of verbiage that characterized Molloy's previous narrative. Moran ends his monologue by celebrating the fictionality of his narrative: "It was not midnight. It was not raining." Malone follows a similar reversal by setting out to tell four different stories and then to conduct an inventory of his possessions, neither of which projects he completes.
But it is the Unnamable who best illustrates the verbal and pronominal impasse that all these narrators reach by the end. The narrative use of language literally proves his undoing. Beckett has called "writing style" "that vanity," "a bowtie about a throat cancer." The Unnamable illustrates this dangerously delusive nature of language in his funny, desperate and perplexed frontal assault on what the French philosopher and critic Gaston Bachelard called a "logosphere," a verbal fabric out of which he too is constructed as a subject. The Unnamable's mental confusion within what he calls the "wordy-gurdy" is mirrored by the syntactical impasses he gets himself into: "But my good will at certain moments is such, and my longing to have floundered however briefly, however feebly, in the great life torrent streaming from the earliest protozoa to the very latest humans, that I, no, parenthesis unfinished. I'll begin again." This manner of propelling sentences along by fits and starts has been described by Ludovic Janvier as "style with engine trouble." In particular Beckett plays fast and loose with pronouns. "To get me to be he, the anti-Mahood..." he starts off one sentence. On another occasion he finds himself talking of "we," only to ask himself whom "we" refers to. Within a sentence he gives up: "no sense in bickering about pronouns and other parts of blather." Towards the end of the Unnamable's monologue his words come spewing out in a torrent of syntactically disjointed phrases that constantly circle round the narrator's central dilemma. Just as the narrator is caught in a pronominal limbo between referent and referee, so all the positives within the narration are speedily negated, ending with the now famous last lines in which changing verbal tenses and pronouns reflect the Unnamable's continuing confusion: "you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on."
After completing The Unnamable, Beckett felt that he had exhausted his vein of self-immersive narration. The nineteen fifties were the years in which Beckett established his reputation as a dramatist with Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Krapp's Last Tape. In 1950 he did begin writing a series of linked short prose texts in French that he reluctantly released for publication in 1955 as Textes pour rien (Texts for Nothing ). In 1956 he claimed that the trilogy brought him to the point where subsequently he felt he was repeating himself: "In the last book--L'Innommable--there's complete disintegration...There's no way to go on." He adds that Texts pour rien "was an attempt to get out of the attitude of disintegration, but it failed." Apart from being wary of Beckett's constant put-downs of his own work, failure, as he wrote, is in his view the modern artist's world. As the voice remarks in the first text, "nothing like breathing your last to put new life in you." Texts for Nothing certainly does not match the virtuoso performance of The Unnamable. Yet it points forward to Beckett's last full-length novel, How It Is, by looking to form for a way out of the dead end reached at the close of The Unnamable.
It has long been recognized that the title, Textes pour rien, alludes to the musical term, "mesure pour rien," meaning "a bar's rest." Pauses in music are as necessary a part of the score as the pauses Beckett incorporates in Godot or How It Is. In the case of Texts, each of the short thirteen texts brings the Unnamable's successor's unstoppable torrent of speech to a temporary rest. Each text offers an evening's worth of narration. All thirteen texts also take the musical form of variations on a theme already adumbrated in the trilogy (although even that is modified by the abandonment of any serious attempt to tell a story). The voice explains why it keeps "trying to vary" - "you never know, it's perhaps all a question of hitting on the right aggregate." Beckett called the thirteenth text a coda. Seen in their entirety, Texts form a musical coda to the trilogy. In Beckett and the Voice of Species Eric Levy has shown how each text introduces a question and ends with "a provisional conclusion which does not so much answer the query as remove the possibility of its being properly asked." The theme is that of a disembodied voice that is constantly looking to assume a concrete existence in its desire for selfhood. The variations that Beckett plays on this theme include imaging this situation as that of a body face down remembering images of life in the light above; portraying his predicament as that of both judge and party, witness and advocate at his own trial; searching for a missing person - himself; looking for the way out (anticipating The Lost Ones ); giving up; and finally returning to the main theme, the realization that "there is nothing but a voice murmuring a trace." Both individual texts and the composition as a whole reveal a circularity beneath an initial appearance of progression.
This formal strategy of countering the linearity of language and its semantic content with a circularity of structure and motifs is given brilliant expression in Beckett's last full-length novel (as it was called in the French, but not the English edition), How It Is (Comment C'est, 1961). Written in French in 1960, this work reflects Beckett's conviction at this time that the modern artist could no longer try to reduce the chaos of existence to the orderliness of artistic form in the manner of Joyce and other modernists. Instead Beckett was looking for a new form that "admits the chaos," while remaining separate from it. The chaos which incorporates our condition takes the haunting form of a figure living out its existence crawling across the mud dragging with it a sack of canned food. Its voice tells of its tortured life in three phases corresponding to the three sections of the novel. In part one ("before Pim") it describes its slow progress and the images that come to it from the old "life in the light." Part two ("with Pim") describes his overtaking another crawler, Pim, whom he tortures into speech. In part three ("after Pim") Pim gets away and the figure is left crawling on waiting to be overtaken by another crawler who will torture him in turn.
Beckett is offering us a savage image of what he sees as the hell of life on earth. He makes a number of oblique references to Dante's Inferno. The entire situation is reminiscent of Canto VII where the souls of the sullen lie immersed in the mud rehearsing their lives in gurgles. In what he calls this "outer hell" Dante's sign above hell's gate ("abandon hope all ye who enter here") is echoed in Beckett's text with "abandoned here effect of hope." The "muckheap" or "sewer" through which his protagonist crawls is Beckett's fiercest visual representation of the reality of human existence, the postmodern hell that confines us each to his or her own consciousness. We are back in the confusion of a dispersed subjectivity. But this time it is not the voice trying to rejoin its authorial origin. Instead Beckett offers a voice that ventriloquially reiterates in unpunctuated brief bursts of speech whatever is said to it: "how it is I say it as I hear it natural order more or less bits and scraps in the mud my life murmur it to the mud." Here the subject of speech portrays himself as the victim of the speaking subject who is simultaneously the author responsible for this fictional creation and the god made responsible by uncomprehending humankind for its miserable condition.
Seen in Bakhtinian terms, How It Is turns out to be a celebration of what the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin termed dialogism, of the independence of fictional voices from their authorial origin. The author is made to make way for the voices that speak through him, for the polyphonic nature of language itself. In part one the narrating voice adopts a similar posture to that adopted by the voice of the Unnamable - one of victimization at the hands of the unseen author. The author (or Author) is pictured as one who "lives bent over me," aided by a "scribe sitting aloof" who records "an ancient voice in me not mine." The voice is tortured into speech by this alien figure. But in part two we witness the tortured narrator turn torturer of Pim who has been brought to life by the narrating voice: "but for me he would never Pim we're talking of Pim never be but for me." His torture takes the appropriate form of forcing the victim into the act of speech. Towards the end of part two the voice recognizes that "Pim never was...only one voice my voice never any other." Every victim becomes torturer in Beckett's contemporary Erebus. Finally in part three the narrating voice throws off all pretence of being under god-like authorial control. Having demonstrated in the manner of Descartes and Malebranche the need for a god ("need of one not one of us an intelligence somewhere") to coordinate the movements of his innumerable crawlers in the mud, he immediately undercuts this yearning for order by exploding the very idea of a just god - or a controlling author: "but all this business of voices yes quaqua yes of other worlds yes of someone in another world yes whose kind of dream I am yes said to be yes...all balls." Actually there's "only me yes alone yes with my voice yes," a voice detached from its origin as we have become detached from our god, a voice that belongs to the Babel of heteroglossia.
How It Is is an artistic tour de force in which Beckett's discovery of a form that would not conceal the chaos is matched by a radically pared down use of language that results in a heightened mode of prose poetry. His use of a three-part structure, as in the trilogy, reflects the repetitive circularity of human life. What he has done, he informs us, is to "divide into three a single eternity for the sake of clarity." As he admits towards the end of the novel, his protagonist's life actually consists of four phases: crawling towards a victim, torturing him, crawling on, and being overtaken by a torturer. But, the voice concludes, "of the four three quarters of our total life only three lend themselves to communication." Why? Because victim and victimizer play identical if complementary roles. But also because he only needs to narrate enough to show the reader that the series can continue ad infinitum. Three parts also enable Beckett to include a central section in which conditions promise to improve: "happy time in its way part two." This is only to give formal expression to the way life repeatedly deludes us into thinking that things are getting better before returning us (in part three) to the primordial mud which is our reality.
Compared to the manic breathless pace of the prose in The Unnamable, the brief phrases which make up the unpunctuated versets of differing lengths in How It Is have a more deliberate, rhythmic quality to them that successfully reproduce the mutterings of a voice that has to pause for breath at frequent intervals. Those blank spaces between the versets (which Beckett only adopted in place of continuous prose just before printing the first edition) act as a visual metaphor for the silence to which the voice aspires, and for the néant where language with its semantic pretensions has no place. The murmurings of the narrator are so many stains on the silence of the Real. Beckett talks in the text of his use of "little blurts midget grammar." By omitting so many of the normal elements of a conventional sentence he is able to undercut some of the denotative aspects of language while foregrounding its connotative and figurative uses. In the original French version, in particular, he plays punningly on the similarity in sound between words like "bout" ("end") and "boue" ("mud"), "Bom" and "bon" ("good"), and especially between "comment c'est" ("how it is") and "commencez" ("begin") with which the novel teasingly ends. The lack of punctuation, capital letters (except proper nouns) and other parts of speech, the use of poetic inversion, and the proliferation of allusions to other texts, also increase the potential for multiple readings of parts of the text and make especially heavy if rewarding demands on the reader, offering an extreme example of what the French literary theorist Roland Barthes calls a "writerly" text.
How It Is is Beckett's last novel-length work of fiction. After 1960 his fiction took the form of what he variously called "residua," "capua mortua" or "têtes mortes" ("death's-heads"), "foirades" ("little farts" or "fizzles"), and "fiascos." All of these later texts (it would be a misnomer to call them short stories) cultivate an art of minimalism. What they lack in length they make up for in density. As Beckett told me, these pieces are residual "(1) Severally, even when that does not appear of which each is all that remains and (2) In relation to whole body of previous work." While a number of these residua refer back to situations explored in earlier novels, many of them evolve from abandoned larger (and occasionally smaller) works. There are eight very brief "Fizzles" that were written between the very late 1950s and 1975. There are also six more substantial texts: All Strange Away (written 1963-4), Imagination morte imaginez (Imagination Dead Imagine, written1965), "Enough" ("Assez," 1965), Le Dépeupleur (The Lost Ones, 1965-6, completed 1971), Bing (Ping, 1966) and Sans (Lessness, 1969). Five of these texts evolve out of one another. Imagination Dead Imagine is the distillment of All Strange Away. The Lost Ones employs a similar fluctuation of heat and light as that which characterized the world of Imagination Dead Imagine. Bing, Beckett informed me, "is a separate work written after and in reaction to Le Dépeupleur abandoned because of its complexity getting beyond control." Lessness was written in direct reaction to Ping, causing the walls of Ping's "true refuge" to fall down in the opening paragraph. "Enough" is the only text to stand outside the series ("I don't know what came over me," Beckett wrote of it).
With the exception of "Enough" all these residua and the later "Fizzles" eschew the use of the first person pronoun. With each new text Beckett aspires to greater impersonality, although the detachment his narrator cultivates is frequently undermined by an ironic tone of exaggeration. In The Lost Ones his little people all progress to stasis. In Imagination Dead Imagine, Ping and Lessness his protagonists have stopped even crawling and come to their final resting place, only betraying their continuing life of the mind by their breath or by movements of the eyes. In Imagination Dead Imagine Beckett conjures up the image of a man and a woman lying back to back in a rotunda; in The Lost Ones he uncharacteristically imagines a Lilliputian people inhabiting a cylinder fifty meters in circumference from which they seek vainly to escape; in Ping he evokes a "bare white body" confined upright to a white box-like room two yards high and one yard square; and in Lessness the same body stands amidst the grey ("never was but grey") ruins of the fallen down walls that surrounded it in Ping. All of these haunting images are the products of Beckett's imaginative attempt to produce a simulacrum of the reality of human existence. This is an inner landscape of the mind, a skullscape, given its most literal realization in the rotunda of Imagination Dead Imagine which is subject to fluctuations of light and heat reminiscent of day and night, summer and winter, consciousness and unconsciousness, life and death, to which we and our minds are subject.
One of the striking features of these shorter texts is their use of arithmetically or proportionally shaped form. The delusions of mathematics constituted one of Beckett's favorite satirical targets in the earlier novels such as Watt and How It Is. In these residua Beckett has incorporated the delusive allure of numbers (that had ultimately trapped the eighteenth century rationalists) into their structure by means of which he attempts to express the illusory nature of life in general. Imagination Dead Imagine meticulously constructs and measures with all the finesse of Euclidean geometry an image that refuses to remain stable, which is only to be expected of a product of the artist's consciousness. The tone of scientific detachment employed by the narrator soon exposes him to the reader's ridicule as his effort to remain objective, faced with the evanescent product of the artistic imagination, proves increasingly ridiculous: "Neither fat nor thin, big nor small, the bodies seem whole and in fairly good condition, to judge by the surfaces exposed to view." This narrating zoologist-turned-pathologist fails to perceive the failure inherent in his scientific approach. What causes the image to ultimately disappear is the obvious relativity of the observer who can not bear to concentrate for too long on an image of suffering humanity. "Only murmur ah, no more, in this silence, and at the same instant for the eye of prey the infinitesimal shudder instantaneously suppressed." Whether "the eye of prey" refers to the eye of one of the figures or to that of the supposedly impersonal observer, the effect is the same - "no question now of ever finding again that white speck lost in whiteness."
The Lost Ones employs a similar technique for similar ends. We are guided through the complex rules of this pigmy population inhabiting a cylinder subject to the same fluctuations of light and heat as in the previous text by a professorial voice whose pomposity exposes him to ridicule. His sentences usually start with phrases such as "To be noted..." or "It might safely be maintained..." and end with such remarks as "So much for a first aperçu of..." or "...if this notion is maintained." When applied to subjects like human sexuality the pose inherent in this lofty attitude becomes the object of Beckett's overt satire: "The mucous membrane itself is affected which would not greatly matter were it not for its hampering effect on the work of love. But even from this point of view no great harm is done so rare is erection in the cylinder. It does occur none the less followed by more or less happy penetration in the nearest tube."
Having searched exhaustively for the self in the earlier fiction it is improbable that Beckett would allow a narrator to pontificate in this manner unscathed. Sure enough within the first section the narrator undercuts his own stance by revealing the theoretical impossibility of acquiring the knowledge he claims to be purveying: "Such harmony only he can relish whose long experience and detailed knowledge of the niches are such as to permit a perfect mental image of the entire system. But it is doubtful that such a one exists." The narrator's inherently logocentric position is exposed by his unwitting act of deconstruction. Beckett multiplies the permutations of his miniature world over fourteen sections, at which point he abandoned the work until five years later when he added a final section. This posits a theoretical "last state of the cylinder" in which the last searcher gives up the search and joins the other vanquished. The narrator dryly calls this "the unthinkable end" which it has to be if only because the narrator has still not given up his own search which takes the narrative form of attempting to explain the appearance of order that prevails in the cylinder.
In these first two texts the narrator has employed mathematical and pseudo-scientific methods to attempt to give substance to the insubstantial fabric of the artistic imagination. In Ping and Lessness the narrator hides behind an impersonal voice that betrays no obvious personality traits. But the text is constructed and shaped by mathematical manipulation. It is no coincidence that these texts belong to the heyday of French structuralism. In both texts reiterative individual components acquire meaning principally through the context in which they appear. Ping consists of 1,030 words made up of 120 words that recur in the form of a 100 different phrases. Certain combinations of words such as "bare white body fixed" appear frequently. But whereas the first appearance of this phrase is followed by further descriptive information ("...one yard legs joined...") in subsequent appearances the context robs it of its certitude (e.g. "...white on white invisible."). Beckett further subverts the impression of exactitude by introducing at random intervals the word "ping" which invariably disturbs the image just described, as in "bare white body fixed ping fixed elsewhere." The word "ping" operates as a random principle, undermining the sense of structuration that the ordering of words and phrases suggests, signifying the presence of a disordering element within the mathematically created illusion of order.
Beckett refines this arithmetic conception of form yet further in Lessness. As in Ping, both the symmetry and chaos of human life are reflected in the way its 120 sentences are ordered on the page. Our longing for order is reflected in formal terms by the way each sentence in the first half of the text is repeated in the second half, and by the way the sixty sentences in each half divide into ten sentences, each set belonging to one of six groups of images. Simultaneously Beckett incorporates the random nature of infinity, endlessness, into his formal organization by employing random paragraph lengths, a random sequence of the six images and the random reappearance of each sentence in the second half. Beckett summons what he has called a "syntax of weakness" to reinforce these structural ploys. For the most part he uses minimal syntax to link the remnants of full sentences. He reserves the use of full syntax for the description of images that belong to the old delusive life in the light. The juxtaposition is intentionally startling, exposing as it does the artificiality of the poetic use of language that blinds us to the grey reality of endlessness: "Little body ash grey locked rigid heart beating face to endlessness. On him will rain again as in the blessed days of blue the passing cloud." The poetic word inversion, the intrusion of the definite article, paralleled by the eruption of color and nostalgia in the second sentence perform a similar function to the use of "ping" in signaling the futility of the attempt to mathematically comprehend the ultimately random nature of chaos.
After two decades during which Beckett's fictional and dramatic works had become progressively more minimalist, he surprised everyone with a renewed burst of creativity, publishing three short novella length texts in the early 1980s. These three works of fiction written in his late seventies constitute a second trilogy. The first of these, Company, was written in English between 1977 and 1979, translated into French, and then published in English in 1980 after Beckett revised it in the light of the French text. Ill Seen Ill Said was first written in French as Mal vu mal dit. Both French and English editions were first published in 1981. Worstward Ho was first written in English and published in 1983. (Beckett's only subsequent significant short work of fiction was Stirrings Still (1989), written on request to help out his old American publisher financially.) These three powerful and highly concentrated texts are not abandoned longer works nor works in progress. They pursue Beckett's lifelong fight with language to new and quite extraordinary lengths. Beckett wrote back in 1937, "As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute." It is as if he was inspired to take up this assault on the false security that language offers us with renewed energy in his old age. Whereas the first trilogy was more closely integrated with its references back to characters and events in the earlier two volumes, these three texts are connected by their progressive reduction of the components that constitute a normal sentence. In Company a "voice comes to one in the dark." In Ill Seen the voice is "ill said.' By Worstward Ho the voice is "missaid." One only has to pay attention to the titles of these three texts to see the progressive deterioration that each describes.
In Company Beckett's principal concern is with the enigma of the first person pronoun. Where he assailed the fictionality of the "I" in the earlier trilogy by employing it throughout, in Company he acknowledges the dependence of the "I" on designating a "you" and a "he" for its very meaning. On the one hand Beckett describes a "he" who lies on his back in the dark; on the other hand he creates a voice that addresses the "he" as "you" in the course of describing incidents in his past life. The subject is split between a third-person thinking and reflecting mind whose thoughts are directed at the reader and a second-person voice of memory that is directed at the one in the dark. Fifteen of the ninety paragraphs employ the second person to evoke autobiographical scenes that bear a close resemblance to incidents in Beckett's own past recounted in Deirdre Bair's biography of him. It quickly becomes apparent that the memories that the voice recalls have become distorted with time. Some of the most nostalgic memories of happiness are lit by an unreal and idealized "[s]unless cloudless brightness." Another memory emphasizes its distance from the memorized event: "You lie in the dark with closed eyes and see the scene. As you could not at the time."
The other contemplative voice in the third person quickly finds itself in its own epistemological quagmire. For a start it is blessed with "reason-ridden" imagination. Further, whose is this voice? Clearly there has to be a third voice that is responsible for the other two: "Deviser of the voice and of its hearer and of himself." This leaves him with a "[d]evised deviser devising it all for company." The possibility of proliferating these pronominal voices is virtually infinite. The only way of limiting them is for the second and third person pronouns to unite in an impossible first person "I" that "will utter again. Yes I remember. That was I. That was I then." But Beckett has already demonstrated in the first trilogy the inescapable division that splits the subject between speaking subject and subject of speech. Language is the villain because it lures us into thinking that its identical use of the pronoun "I" in both cases means that a unified ego exists somewhere. The only way out of the impasse is to end the fiction, immobilize the devised and the deviser, and then bring the "words to an end. With every inane word a little nearer to the last." The final paragraph returns the "you" to where "you always were. Alone." All the pronominal presences were fictive additions that gave linguistic credence to an ultimately undefinable, non verbal subject.
Ill Seen Ill Said is a fictive construct the subject of which is the construction of fiction, a work of imagination in which imagination is seen constantly at work. This text takes the postmodern trait of self referentiality to unprecedented lengths. To record the process of composition in the very act of composing that record is to go beyond the by now familiar intrusion of the writer into his or her narrative. Not content with commentary, Beckett allows the narrator's concern with his craft to usurp his concern with his story. The story is minimal. It concerns an old woman who moves about a house and visits a nearby tombstone. Susan Brienza suggests that the tombstone could stand in for the grave of traditional fiction, and that the "Farewell to farewell" of the final paragraph (out of 61) reveals the entire text to be a wake for his previous fictional output. Certainly it is the telling of the story rather than the story itself that preoccupies the narrator from the opening paragraph. Near the beginning the narrative voice urges itself into movement with "On," and pursues the metaphor of motion with commands like "Quick then," "Careful," or "Gently gently." Towards the close of the piece it applies verbal brakes with exclamations like "Less," "Enough," "No more."
These commands represent the artistic imagination caught in the very act of creation. At times it appears a god like faculty. It summons up whatever objects it requires. "The cabin," it will announce, or, "Meagre pastures..." But then questions arise. "How come a cabin in such a place? How came?" The correction of tense shows the imagination already mistaking past for present, fiction for actuality. As the narrative proceeds the features summoned earlier with such authority begin to impose their own limitations on the imaginative faculty: "A moor would have better met the case...In any case too late." Nevertheless the imagination's needs ultimately take precedence over internal demands for narrative consistency. What is initially ill seen soon enough becomes ill said. Words subsume the image which appears and disappears in increasingly distorted form, "well on the way to inexistence." The answer is to fall back on the inner eye of the imagination: "Nothing for it but to close the eye for good and see her. Her and rest." This inner sight is a verbal construct that has to be finally said ill enough to be rid of it. Even then the imagination has one last trick to play in the closing paragraph by prolonging its activity "[o]ne moment more...Know happiness." The ill seen scenario of the narrative has been "devoured" by the ill said activity of artistic creation which has always been a principal preoccupation in Beckett's work.
What we witness in the second trilogy is the gradual replacement of the diegesis of narration (the indirect rendering of speech) by the mimesis (or direct rendering) of the act of narration. The images that provide the subject of narration in these texts are most prolific in Company. In Ill Seen Ill Said a drastically reduced visual content makes spasmodic appearances. In Worstward Ho the minimal images of a woman, an old man and a child, and a skull are first conjured up and then persistently reduced to a trunk or a one-eyed stare, until finally they reach the ultimate state in minimalization, "Three pins. One pinhole." Simultaneously the act of narration has taken over as subject. In effect Beckett has deconstructed the traditional form of narrative by seizing on the conventionally marginalized process of narration and reinscribing plot and character within this new hierarchy. This is a particularly appropriate strategy for a postmodernist to take if one accepts the hypothesis that one way of defining postmodernism is that it deconstructs modernism. In the case of literature such an act of deconstruction cannot ignore the logocentric use to which narration puts language. "Words are a form of complacency," Beckett wrote. In Worstward Ho he launches his fiercest assault on the deceptive way in which language has been used to privilege the pervasiveness of meaning, order, linearity.
The absence of a named speaker in Worstward Ho naturally directs the reader's attention to the role of language in this text. Opening with a linguistic reference back to Ill Seen Ill Said, it establishes within the first paragraph a new pared down syntax that is simultaneously demanding and rewarding: "On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on." That last sentence is also the sentence with which this piece ends. It incorporates the paradoxical nature of Beckett's last major attempt to force language to express the inexpressible, non linguistic void. His object is to use language to negate its signifying properties, something that he knows is ultimately unattainable. But he can at least "[f]ail better," rob words of their positive semantic value by creating neologisms that draw attention to their deceptive nature. "What words for what then? How almost they still ring." To take the ring out of them Beckett employs double and treble negatives: "Unlessenable least." "Nohow naught." "Unmoreable unlessable unworseable evermost almost void." Beckett turns words on themselves, compelling them to acknowledge their inadequacy, using their negation to accommodate the presence of true formless being. Yet even the radical antilanguage he forges in this text cannot always prevent the old ring from seeping through: "Vasts apart. At bounds of boundless void." Beckett announced at the start of his writing career his program: "An assault on words in the name of beauty." His last major text takes this assault to its furthest point even as it produces the esthetic effect in the name of which he conducted his lifelong verbal war on words.
Copyright, Brian Finney, 1994. By permission: Columbia University Press.
(First published in The Columbia History of the British Novel. Ed.John Richetti. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. 842-66.)